A number of tattoos decorate Russell Brand’s skin, all of which carry different meanings. There are references to both Christian and Hindu spirituality, West Ham United’s football club logo, lines and symbols denoting different chakras and a portrait of the Queen of England (plastered on his thigh to remind him Britain is his home). But one, in particular, stands out. A quote Brand attributes to Oscar Wilde that reads, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.” It’s appropriate for a comedian who has built a career out of saying things that get him into trouble. Thankfully he’s funny – which must be why he’s still alive.
Although with his past in mind, he’s lucky to be.
Earlier in his life Brand was heavily into drugs, which could easily have sent him the way of so many other young and talented entertainers. From a troubled childhood through to a meteoric rise as a comedian and video host on MTV, Brand’s behaviour was always a mischievous brew of appalling and hilarious. Some highlights from his self-destructive period include introducing Kylie Minogue to his heroin dealer, fighting with an audience member at a stand-up show, trying to throw himself and a security guard off of a balcony and dressing up as Osama bin Laden the day after 9/11 (this stunt ultimately led MTV to fire him). His spectacular nosedive finally came to an end when his agent, John Noel, found Brand in a bathroom strung out on heroin on Christmas Eve and organised an intervention. This led to his abstinence from drugs in 2002 (the pair parted ways in 2017 when Brand moved to a new agent).
Now the headlines associated with Brand mostly spell out messages of hope and recovery. ‘Russell Brand: my life without drugs’ reads a Guardian article from 2013, ‘Russell Brand on heroin, abstinence and addiction’ says a Spectator piece from the same year and, more recently, ‘Recovery, Russell Brand Style’ in the New York Times.
His latest book Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions covers the 12-step program that helped Brand beat his demons. He believes that no matter what your affliction (and in the modern world, we’re all afflicted by something, he says) there’s an answer for it in the 12 steps. Eat too much chocolate? Twelve steps. Your phone dominates your life? Twelve steps. Addicted to self-help books? You better believe it. According to Brand, 12 steps is more than a program for recovering alcos – it can be used to improve pretty much any aspect of life.
Thankfully, all the positive living hasn’t stopped him being funny. Anyone whose memory stretches back to 2013 would recall his acceptance speech at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards. Brand pointed out Hugo Boss, the event’s sponsor, had dressed the Third Reich, adding that, “The Nazis did have flaws, but, you know, they did look fucking fantastic.” Organisers were ropeable. But let’s be honest – his outburst was bloody hilarious.
In his new show, Re:Birth, he goes over interviews from his brief stint as a political guru, where he would foam at the mouth about capitalism and income inequality before returning to his £3.3 million mansion in Oxfordshire. He watches the vids alongside his audience and takes the piss out of himself in hilarious fashion. Brand’s most on form when he’s being self-deprecating and the show has been well-received by critics and fans. He’s dropped the whole political shtick and gone back to doing what he does best: talking about himself.
And while he is self-obsessed – he admits as much himself – it doesn’t matter. He’s charismatic, funny and people can’t help but like him. Through all the wild-eyed, jaunty phases of his career, we’ve been there, cheering his honest appraisals of himself and the world at large. Because he tells the truth, no matter how it sounds, and that’s what’s kept him alive.